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Friends Star David Schwimmer Stands By the Show's Political Incorrectness

"You have to look at it from the point of view of what the show was trying to do at the time," the actor says

Mekeisha Madden Toby

David Schwimmer no longer has any regrets when it comes to Friends. There was a point in time when the actor wanted to be known for more than his role as Ross Geller, the lovable but bumbling paleontologist he played for a decade on the hit NBC series, but now he is past that phase (cue another round of reunion buzz). Interestingly, Schwimmer is also now speaking out about some of the most common current criticisms of the show, including the fact that it hasn't aged well in certain societal respects.

"I think I'm kind of over that," Schwimmer, 53, recently told The Guardianof his previous need to distance himself from his career-making character. "There was a period that I was very, very frustrated by being pigeonholed in this one genre, this one idea. I got Friends when I was 27, but I had done all this work on stage. But all that was just eradicated. As far as the public was concerned, I came out of the womb doing sitcom. So that was frustrating, as if it obliterated all the other training, all the other roles I had done."

And although Friends has enjoyed a second life thanks to the DVD collections and streaming, it has also been met with claims that the show's humor isn't time-tested and comes across as racially homogenous, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist by modern viewing standards. A glaring example is the cringe-worthy running joke about Chandler's (Matthew Perry) discomfort with his trans parent. For Schwimmer, though, those who'd criticize the show are overlooking some important context.

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"I don't care," he said of those cultural concerns. "The truth is also that [the] show was groundbreaking in its time for the way in which it handled so casually sex, protected sex, gay marriage and relationships. The pilot of the show was my character's wife left him for a woman and there was a gay wedding, of my ex and her wife, that I attended." Indeed, the marriage scene featuring Ross' ex-wife Carol (Jane Sibbett) and Susan (Jessica Hecht) was a trailblazing moment on TV -- even if it did follow many insensitive jokes made at their expense.

"I feel that a lot of the problem today in so many areas is that so little is taken in context," he added. "You have to look at it from the point of view of what the show was trying to do at the time. I'm the first person to say that maybe something was inappropriate or insensitive, but I feel like my barometer was pretty good at that time. I was already really attuned to social issues and issues of equality."

Schwimmer also pointed out that Ross dated several non-white women throughout Friends' 10 seasons. "Maybe there should be an all-black Friends or an all-Asian Friends," Schwimmer said, apparently having never seen Living Single. "But I was well aware of the lack of diversity and I campaigned for years to have Ross date women of color. One of the first girlfriends I had on the show was an Asian American woman, and later I dated African American women. That was a very conscious push on my part." He is, of course, referring to Julie (Lauren Tom) and Charlie (Aisha Tyler), who each had recurring arcs, and Kirsten (Gabrielle Union) a one-episode character.

The show also celebrated Jewish holidays, like the one in which Ross dressed up as the Hanukkah armadillo. "It's interesting also how the show handled the Judaism of the characters," Schwimmer said. "I don't think that was earth-shattering or groundbreaking at all, but I for one was glad that we had at least one episode where it wasn't just about Christmas. It was also Hanukkah and, even though I played the Hanukkah armadillo, I was glad that we at least acknowledged the differences in religious observation."

Friends will be available to stream on HBO Max later this year.

David Schwimmer, Friends